Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Land Rover: a testimonial

I apologise if your smooth progress around Newcastle on Friday was impeded by a blue Land Rover Discovery periodically shuddering to a halt.

That was my car, though it really wasn’t all my fault. Immediate blame must rest squarely with the dealer to which I took it last Tuesday. I clearly explained what was wrong with the vehicle and returned in the evening only to be told that “they couldn’t find a fault”.

I yearn for the days when a man in oily overalls would raise a car’s bonnet and hit things with hammers of steadily increasing sizes until he felt able to pronounce that the problem was cured.

His contemporary successor seems so terrified of getting his hands dirty that he probably thinks Swarfega is the name of a Scandinavian department store. He prefers to plug his little computer into your car and, if he can’t understand what it tells him, conveniently wipes the record and shrugs his shoulders.

I know this because I have twice returned my current car with defects – the first time with a mere 500 miles on its clock – only to be told that they were effectively all in my mind.

Just to have the thing break down on me shortly afterwards.

I would not mind so much but for the fact that this has hardly ever happened to me before, through a long motoring history that began with a 1956 MG Magnette and continued through a traditional Land Rover that had been comprehensively hammered by an apparently psychopathic farmer before I bought it.

A smarter version of my first car

I am so glad now that I gave more than £50,000 of support to the British motor industry by buying what is clearly not only a “Friday car” but one built after the local football team had lost a key match on Thursday night, and the workforce had been further distracted by an outbreak of amoebic dysentery.

I have bought flats and houses for less, and would probably have stood more chance of getting reliably from A to B in some of them.

I wasted pretty much the whole of Saturday waiting for someone to provide me with a replacement hire car. In the meantime I had the pleasure of watching an AA man tow my heap of junk away, though sadly he rejected my attempt to bribe him to do an emergency stop and write the thing off before it could be “repaired”. Apparently he gets an awful lot of requests on similar lines.

None of which would have upset me quite so much if it had not resulted in my missing the wedding of a dear friend in Durham, at which I had been invited to be a witness. This was, ironically, my sole reason for spending the weekend in the North East in the first place.

I tried to explain this to the various people I called for help, but formed the firm impression that none of them really gave a stuff. Which is a shame, because customer care is no more of a dark art than public relations in general.

It just requires the application of a small amount of common sense, and a willingness to treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself.

Still, I must not be too negative about British motor manufacturing. My wife is delighted with her Sunderland-built Qashqai and it has caused her no problems at all. (Though she has caused it one or two, notably when she unaccountably decided to use the hump backed bridge at Wallington as the launch pad for an Evel Knievel-style stunt.)

I think I shall buy a Qashqai of my own next, though I will study the performance of Sunderland AFC carefully before committing myself, and insist on having one assembled on a Tuesday.

I certainly shan’t be buying another Land Rover. Or, indeed, accepting one as a free gift.

My only regret was that my two young sons were not around to witness it being loaded onto the tow truck, a spectacle they would both have greatly enjoyed. Toddler Jamie was shown a photo and sadly shook his head.

“Daddy car uh-oh,” he sighed.

I could not have put it better myself.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Amen to that, Brother Uh-Oh

Within a week of my elder son starting school, 127 so-called education experts had clubbed together to warn me that I was ruining his life.

Because where we are going wrong in the UK, apparently, is sending children to school at the age of four. We should be waiting until they are six or seven before starting their formal education, as they do in Scandinavian countries that “consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing”.

To take this debate forward, I thought it might be helpful to obtain the views of a consumer. Charlie, aged 4¼, reports that he loves school so much that he would like to sleep there and not bother coming home.

(An opinion which raised my hopes of packing him off to boarding school in a year or two, if only I could overcome his mother’s veto and land a major lottery win to pay the fees).

When I was away last weekend, he said “I miss …” and Mrs Hann was surprised when the person in question proved not to be the traditional “Daddy” but “Mrs Tudor”, his form teacher.

Charlie is happy to get changed as soon as he comes home so as “not to spoil my beautiful school uniform”. He also cheerfully completes his reading homework each evening and appears to be making excellent progress on all fronts.

However, he has always been eager to learn. Indeed, the only problem we had in getting him to school in the first place was his confident but misplaced assertion that there was no need for him to go as “I already know everything”.

I also started school aged 4¼ and am sure it did me no harm, because I was similarly ready to learn. Indeed, my parents paid for me to go to a private school precisely because the local state primary would not admit me for another year, and they could not face me hanging around the house badgering them with questions.

What did do me harm was later being fast-tracked into taking my A-levels a year earlier than usual so that I could reach university well before I was socially equipped to make the most of it (though, to be fair, on that basis I should probably have deferred my degree course until I was nearer 30).

But then we all develop at different paces. When Charlie was 19 months old he was already addressing us in well-formed sentences. His younger brother Jamie, on the other hand, who is at that age now, says little more than “Mamma”, “Dadda” and “Uh-oh”, which is both his comment when anything goes wrong and his slightly disturbing name for his elder brother.

He also recently started saying “Amen”, which I took to be an early sign of religious awakening, but turns out to be his interpretation of the name of his best friend at nursery, a little girl called Carmen.

The day before Charlie started school my wife gave him his choice of special treat and he asked to be taken to one of those farms where kiddies are invited to stroke bunnies, feed lambs, milk cows and the like. On Saturday he asked us to pay it a repeat visit on the kind pretext of sharing this experience with his younger brother.

In reality, what we mainly witnessed were clear signs of growing confidence and independence as Charlie happily went off alone on the sort of tractor ride that he would previously have insisted on taking only with his mother.

All of which is, I can see, very bittersweet for Mummy, who sees her baby growing up at a pace rarely witnessed since Jack scattered those magic bean seeds in the pantomime.

Childhood and innocence are surprisingly short, and we are doing our best to savour what is left of it. Buoyed up by the knowledge that, at his current rate of progress, young Jamie will indeed be an ideal candidate for the 127 educationalists’ preferred “free play” until he is six or seven.

Which may work out particularly well if I can secure a free transfer of my PR skills to a company somewhere in Scandinavia, where my reputation is as yet untarnished by experience.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A get well card to a Fleet Street legend

I am writing this in the quiet carriage on Monday’s 06.53 East Coast train from Alnmouth to King’s Cross.

That is in the completely dead and wasted time that justifies lashing out £50bn-plus on HS2 to get busy executives into London a little bit quicker.

It’s not a journey I often make these days, though for two decades it was my weekly routine. Though back then, as I recall, the train left at a psychologically advantageous few minutes past seven, and arrived in London nearly 15 minutes earlier than it does now. It is hard to interpret these changes as an improvement.

It also does not help that I lay awake nearly all night worrying about whether my car would make it to the station. This is entirely my own fault for allowing patriotism and hope to triumph over experience, inducing me to buy another British-made Land Rover product.

The distinctive clunk and jerk of an imminently failing gearbox on the approach to Branxton was the only thing that marred my visit to the “Flodden 500” commemorations there on Sunday afternoon. The floral displays in the lovely church were truly outstanding, and the battlefield itself has acquired some useful interpretation boards since I last paid it a visit many years ago.

Floral tribute to King James IV
"Surrey and his men"

The killing field of Flodden is an amazingly small space to have witnessed the end of so many thousands of lives – and for what? The union of the English and Scottish crowns a mere nine decades later confirms the truth of my late mother’s favourite mantra: “It will all be the same in 100 years’ time.”

Flodden Field, viewed from the English lines

Although Mr Salmond has timed his referendum to coincide with the Scottish victory at Bannockburn next year, I do hope that some will reflect on Flodden, and the pointlessness of division and conflict, when casting their votes.

I am becoming quite familiar with the road north to Milfield, where my aunt and I enjoyed an excellent lunch at the legendary Red Lion to set us up for Flodden.

The Red Lion's unusual bar tariff

This is because my distinguished colleague David Banks, having devoted his column last Friday to our scheduled columnists’ lunch that day in Newcastle, rang me early in the morning with the sad news that he felt too poorly to make the trip.

Later, having compressed half a day’s work into a mere two hours, I rang him back and offered him a lift. I came to regret this when I discovered that the A697 north of Powburn was largely under water, restricting the caravans travelling in my direction to a mere 20mph. (Though lorries and vans coming towards me, oddly enough, still felt that it was fine to try cornering at a terrifying 60mph-plus.)

Banksy devoted the whole similarly unnerving hour’s drive to Newcastle to an account of his recent medical history – and that was just the executive summary. I don’t think I have heard a “looking on the bright side” line to match his “at least having the leukaemia back has got rid of my diabetes” since I heard that fine old joke about the butler ringing his absent employer to report that the grand house and its priceless contents had all been burnt to a cinder, “though on the plus side, sir, all the heat has brought your spring bulbs on a treat.”

It was also no doubt good for my own health that the need to convey the Fleet Street legend back to his Tweedo Paradiso forced me to revise my original plan of getting howling drunk and then wandering aimlessly around the centre of the toon for several hours until I sobered up.

At one point my passenger remarked that it was very kind of me to make a 50-mile detour to give him a lift. I said truthfully that it was a pleasure, but wondered whether he might like to reflect that it was possible for someone to be a Tory and a fairly decent human being at the same time.

He looked at me as though I had asked him to accept that the moon is made of green cheese.

Nevertheless, despite our deep-rooted political differences, this column comes with just one message: get well, Banksy, preferably soon.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Are you all right there, mate?

If anyone thought to revive that great 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served, the first thing they would need to revisit is the title.

Because the universal greeting in the nation’s shops, pubs and restaurants has now become “Are you all right there?” To which a male speaker will almost invariably append the word “mate”.

I am led to believe that the correct conversational reply to this gambit is “I’m good” (short version) or “Yeah, I’m good, mate” (in full).

The problem is that, in reality, I’m very far from good. Because only five words into my nascent relationship with whichever shop assistant, barperson or receptionist is addressing me, I find myself in a thoroughly bad mood.

I want to respond by pointing out that theirs is a blanking stupid question. Because clearly I am not all right, in the sense of being in full possession of everything I could possibly desire.

In fact, though it may come as a surprise to them to learn this, I find myself in want of a newspaper, drink, meal, ticket, check-in or some other trifle of that sort. Which is why I have taken the trouble to present myself at their place of work and join a dispiriting queue for their attention. Having finally reached the front of that, I would now very much like them to provide whatever product or service their employer is offering speedily, efficiently and with the modicum of respect that is due to the customer who ultimately pays their wages.

Which might be more evident if they kicked off the exchange with something more along the lines of “How may I help you, sir?”

This wish apparently marks me down as stiff, formal, old-fashioned and undemocratic - all of which I am happy to accept as perfectly accurate descriptions of my character.

I can still remember vividly the first time a shop assistant addressed me as “sir” rather than “son”, in Turners’ camera shop in Pink Lane in 1968. It put a spring in my step for days. I little thought that, 45 years later, I would have regressed to being classed as some spotty minimum wage employee’s “mate”.

No wonder I do more of my shopping online every month.

However, while the internet undoubtedly has its uses, it is also a joy to escape from it from time to time. I write this having just returned from three nights in a friends’ cottage in Snowdonia, where the presence of a large mountain at the bottom of the garden ensured a complete absence of TV and mobile reception.

The view from our bedroom window: Snowdon in the middle

Deprived of news, soaps, dramas, e-mails, phone calls, texts, Twitter and Facebook, we talked to each other, ate and drank to delightful excess, and tried to work some of it off by walking through the hills.
Which are, for some reason, curiously free of the giant wind turbines that seem destined to proliferate throughout Northumberland.

Add in the proximity of sandy beaches as fine as anything in the North East, and a positive feast of steam railways, and you may perhaps understand why I have returned more relaxed and refreshed than I have felt after any break I have taken in many years.

In fact, only one thing marred the whole experience. It occurred when we walked into a chapel near my friends’ house, now converted into a licensed cafĂ© to cater for the physical needs of walkers rather than the spiritual needs of the local community.

I strolled cheerfully up the counter only to be greeted with the dread words “Are you all right there?” 

To which I could only reply, with infinite sadness, “Well, I was.”

Shortly afterwards, by pure serendipity, I found myself on a beach in Tremadoc Bay where I secured a faint mobile signal for just long enough to place a winning bid on eBay for the Newcastle trolleybus destination blind that has long been the one material possession I felt I needed to make my life complete.

So: yes, strategic access to the internet has its benefits. But if I had the choice, I’d gladly give it up tomorrow for the polite and personal service of the slower-paced analogue world in which I grew up. 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.